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Nuclear summer: The Pakistan - India conflict

By Brad Keena
web posted June 10, 2002

Growing up during the Cold War, I lived for a time in Portugal, attending an English private school. It's where I became a British boy scout, got my shins pounded in field hockey, and learned odds things only the English would teach, such as "girls 'glow,' men 'perspire,' and horses 'sweat'." [As for the latter, I've since developed a similar expression, pertaining to death: "people we know and love 'pass away,' people we don't know 'die,' and animals, criminals, and people we don't like 'croak'" (i.e., your uncle passed away, the lady next door died, the cat down the street croaked).

In those days, we took the Cold War seriously. It was the cause of freedom vs. totalitarianism. Its outcome was vital to the future of our way of life, not to mention our very existence. In the 1960's, especially, America was still deeply appreciated by the people of "free" Europe. Free citizens respected the power of nuclear weapons as both a wonderful deterrent but also an unthinkable last resort.

Now that the Cold War has ended, a new Cold War involving unlikely participants - India and Pakistan - is festering. Yikes! Talk about irony. Just when President Bust does the unthinkable and signs a massive nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, two countries that had little to do with our face-off are now on the verge of their own nuclear war.

Stranger, still, is the fact that much of the population of the two countries scarcely understands what a nuclear bomb is or does. In India and Pakistan, the "man on the street" is proud his country has nuclear weapons, believing each to be simply a bigger bomb that's louder and blows up more things and than conventional bombs. Where is a nuclear freeze advocate when you need one?

Better late than never, last week's India version of Time magazine, India Today, featured a cover picture depicting people in a panic running out of a city underneath a billowing mushroom cloud, atop the caption, "What If ..." [Oddly there are no women in the picture. I guess the men plan to leave all the women and children back in the city.] Still, an all-out nuclear war doesn't have to happen, although experts I've spoken with all agree it may take U.S. intervention to keep the two sides apart.

Currently, there are three theories floating around as to what may happen this summer in south Asia. The first we can live with - the other two are worse than a summer Hollywood blockbuster about aliens annihilating earth.

[Our office pool now has India leading Pakistan, seven million to five million.]

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf

The first theory is that the two countries will continue to engage in a war of words, threatening to go nuclear, with each leader quietly thinking otherwise. Like a couple of kids on the playground, it's easier to talk trash than to actually strike an opponent you know will hit back with painful and tragic certitude. It happened last week. What a scene for a catfight. During a break at the Asian summit in Kazakhstan on June 5, Indian President Atal Behair Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf confronted one other (at a local 7-11). Trading insults, the two refused to even shake hands.

A second theory - largely discredited (so far) - has India and Pakistan teeing off on each other, igniting similar wars among rivals around the world. It goes something like this: India whacks Pakistan. The rest of the world does nothing. Pakistan retaliates with nuclear bombs demolishing several cities in India. The rest of the world does nothing. India retaliates by flattening more cities in Pakistan. Curious that the rest of the world continues to do nothing, North Korea flattens South Korea on the same afternoon that Israel demolishes Baghdad. Incited, other rivals get into the act: Argentina launches a sea assault on the Falklands; the Hopi nation declares war on the Navajos; Edmonton attacks Calgary; Britney Spears croaks Eminem.

While all-out World War III almost seems farfetched after the Bush-Putin summit, it is a third theory about which course India and Pakistan may take that has experts most concerned. It is the theory that Pakistan and India will engage in a limited, tactical (possibly even nuclear) exchange before calling a truce. The U.S. pours in billions of dollars to help India recover, while Pakistan closes its doors to the outside world against the vacuum of an internal religious and political struggle over which Islamic extremists claim their biggest prize to date: Pakislamistad, or something renamed with extremist religious tyranny written all over it.

That final theory is the most troubling of the three possibilities if only because it has real shot at becoming the nightmare the terrorists have long dreamed of unleashing on the West. Taliban sympathizers in Kashmir openly talk of war with India as the solution to Western-friendly Musharraf.

After last week's Asian Summit, it became clear that Russian president Putin cannot convince the two sides to begin a peaceful dialogue. Neither is Europe equipped to help the two sides solve their differences (the Brits hope we'll forget the United Kingdom ever had anything to do with the region).

At the very least, the vision of even a limited war between India and Pakistan should be real enough to make the Bush Administration perspire. The White House' War on Terrorism faces the very real possibility of Pakistan replacing Afghanistan, joining a growing group of Islamic nations vowing to oppose the West.

Contact Brad Keena at JBKeena@Hotmail.com.

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